Category Archives: daily observation

Reading three books at a time

Lately I have been trying a new kind of reading. I take three books and read them regularly at different times of each day, planting thought seeds for the coming hours and encouraging synaptic serendipity.

For the past week I have started my day with the exchange of letters between John Berger and John Christie published as Lapwing and Fox. In the afternoons I have been reading The Living Stones by Ithell Colquhoun and at night it’s Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.

In my head today I have the image of deer appearing from the woods to listen to a flute playing; I imagine encounters with buccas in St Keverne; and I travel with Anna M. back to the site of her exile in Karaganda. The thoughts play off each other as I experiment with reading in this way.

It’s an interesting exercise; the interplay between the three books sparks many a creative thought and adds up to more than the sum of the pages turned.

Thanks for doings

The postcard dated 12 December 1945 is addressed to Mr B Crisp in Thorpe, Norwich. The message reads simply:

Thanks for doings

Although sent from Saxmundham in Suffolk, the picture on the card is from faraway British Columbia. It shows a monument in Barkerville with an inscription commemorating old Cariboo, ‘whose gold fields discovered in 1861 have added over sixty million to the wealth of the world’ and notes that here was ‘the terminus of the Great Wagon Road from Yale completed in 1856’.

Barkerville, it turns out, is named after William (Billy) Barker, born in March, Cambridgeshire, in 1817, two hundred years ago this year. He moved to California in the 1840s and then to Canada, where he found gold, mining a total of 37,500 ounces in his life. In spite of that great wealth, he died a poor man on July 11, 1894 in a nursing home in Victoria, British Columbia.

Why did A send this card to Mr Crisp in 1945? Was there a family connection with Billy Barker and the Cariboo Gold Fields? What were the ‘doings’?


In the wallet

Never less
Than a hundred


In a basket
By the bed

Tank half full

Ready to go
At any time

Waste Data

In the 1970s, while I was working for the publishing division of the Xerox Corporation, the company engaged in something called the Records Retention Programme. The purpose of this was to distinguish between records and files (loads of paper) that needed to be kept for legal or operational reasons, and to decide which could be disposed of, which could be stored more efficiently on microfilm, which moved to storage facilities that were cheaper than filing cabinets located in prime city centre offices, and which needed to be kept near to the people who generated it. It was a major operation and one that would, it was calculated, save the corporation as a whole more than fifty million dollars.

Now that such records are mostly kept in digital form, I wonder if the expense associated with retaining, organising and archiving organisational data is fully understood and taken into account by the companies that generate them. I suspect not and that the cost of keeping data that is surplus to requirements is running out of control. Does anyone know, or care, how much time, energy and money is squandered building and maintaining unnecessary server farms, mountain caverns, desert bunkers and tundra outposts? Someone certainly knows how much money is to be made by the companies doing the data warehousing job.

Mont Ventoux

This picture of a raptor near Mont Ventoux was taken in memory of Tommy Simpson who died there on a hot afternoon fifty years ago today during the 1967 Tour de France. His autobiography, Cycling Is My Life, was published in the same year.

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Coffee Beans

Recently I’ve taken to grinding coffee beans again,
And today, opening a new pack of Italian medium-roasted,
Filling up the coffee jar,
I shook and upended the vacuum-packing folds,
Making sure that every bean was out.
A sign of harder times to come.

Memorial Day

I’m reading a collection of short stories by William Styron, and I am much enjoying the confident American style that doesn’t fear long sentences and the creative variety of precise punctuation that impresses as it soothes; reading such narratives requires a concentration, but it is a concentration given willingly and – the author must have worked so hard on this – with joy and gratitude to a master just entering his prime.

The stories arise from Styron’s time in the US Marine Corps, both in the later period of war against Japan and on his recall during the Korean War. They are, I suppose, male in orientation, and as the Publisher’s Note says – not many books would have such a postscript in these days when the publisher is more disregarded than held in high regard – ‘they present a complex picture of military life – its hardships, deprivations, and stupidities; its esprit, camaraderie, and seductive allure’. I am glad to have read this work.

I notice that the story after which the collection is named, The Suicide Run, was first published in American Poetry Review in May/June1974. It must have been about this time that I visited Styron’s house in Roxbury and I have kept a few vivid memories of that time – one of those moist warm evenings which can come to New England in the days after Memorial Day – just a few months after I moved to live in New York City.

I was staying with friends in Connecticut, in Bethel, and had come to Roxbury and this house to visit another friend who was housesitting. We stayed for a few hours, enjoyed some of the Styron’s drink, lounged around, talked and laughed, and looked at books in the bookshelves. Being young and hungry we were soon in the kitchen and no doubt food was found and consumed, but that is only a vague memory. What stays in my mind from that visit was the wall-mounted telephone near the door and the list of telephone numbers, hand-written on a sheet of cardboard that was taped roughly to the scullery wall. The names and numbers were in different ballpoint ink, pencil and pen; there were crossings-out and addings-to – the way we all kept track of numbers before computers, smartphones, and even before the Filofax.

On this list there were about fifty names and many of them were recognisable – there were several Kennedys, Mailer, Capote, Bacall, and, the one that still thrills me, Sinatra. This very brief and distant exposure to the interconnected American clique of politics, literature and show business was never to be repeated. I never met Bill Styron and, until this week, never read any of his writing; but that doesn’t mean the writer – and what we might today call his contact list – haven’t been in my mind for all the intervening years. Bill Styron, Betty Bacall, Frank Sinatra. Who could forget that?

But such as life is, I believe I have got hold of the good end of it

Today, at a wonderful second-hand bookshop in Beccles, I bought a book created by Holbrook Jackson in 1945 called Bookman’s Holiday: a recreation for booklovers. It contained part of a letter Edward Fitzgerald wrote to John Allen from nearby Gelderstone Hall in 1839. This has had a strangely settling effect on me, so I share it here.

Here I live with tolerable content: perhaps with as much as most people arrive at, and what if one were properly grateful one would perhaps call perfect happiness. Here is a glorious sunshiny day; all the morning I read about Nero in Tacitus lying at full length on a bench in the garden: a nightingale singing and some red anemones eyeing the sun manfully not far off. A funny mixture all this: Nero, and the delicacy of the Spring: all very human however. Then at half-past one lunch on Cambridge cream cheese: then a ride over hill and dale: then spudding up some weeds from the grass: and then coming in, I sit down and write to you, my sister winding red worsted from the back of a chair, and the most delightful little girl chattering incessantly. So runs the world away. You think I live in Epicurean ease: but this happens to be a jolly day: one isn’t always well, or tolerably good, the weather is not always clear, nor nightingales singing, nor Tacitus full of pleasant atrocity. But such as life is, I believe I have got hold of the good end of it.

The Communication Narrative

Stories often hinge on devices of communication: proclamations and posted signs; the arrival of a messenger, a letter; a phone ringing, a stop at a pub or roadside diner to use a payphone; the headline in the newspaper, classified ads that signify betrayal or command; codes hidden in crossword clues, secret ink, numbers and names written in matchbooks. Messages of all sorts drive our narratives and tie together our plots.

Now, as we read and write about humans negotiating the world through digital devices, this may be changing. Communication leads to limited, selected or non-existent communication. Dialogue in novels can rely on neologisms and invented languages, while descriptions of contemporary technology lose currency as media change too fast to provide any long-lasting credibility to contemporary narratives. While people now expect instantaneous and constant communication in their daily lives, fictional narratives are stripped of the tension that comes from not knowing and the surprise that comes from unexpected revelations.

Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung has just published an article by Sandra Kegel about three recent Swiss novels (Schweizer Männer auf der Flucht, 29.03.2017). Each of these books concerns a middle-aged man who makes an escape from his normal life, who just walks away. In each of the stories the mobile telephone has a specific problematic role. Thomas, in Peter Stamm’s Weit über das Land leaves his behind, while the protagonists of Hagard by Lukas Bärfuss and Kraft by Jonas Lüschers struggle with their Handys, their last remaining contact with the former life.

Reaching the other side of communication looks like being a major motif in the narratives of our communication-centred world. New stories may help us to face the reality of the always-on nightmare by showing us that we can pretend that another world is possible, if only we are brave enough to run and to do it now.

Walking past Number 10

I remember when it was normal to cut through Downing Street on the way to catch a bus in Whitehall. It took one flight of stone steps, a short walk past a single policeman, perhaps a few tourist cameras, and there you were.

Then it started to change. In the early 1970s, my first publishing job was in Buckingham Gate and the office overlooked the parade ground of Wellington Barracks. It was a time of IRA activity and we were used to the disruption and road closures caused by bomb threats at the Passport Office on near-by Petty France.

We took our morning tea, provided by a tea trolley, timed to coincide with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The Guards Regiments were usually serving in Northern Ireland, so we regularly enjoyed the sight of Ghurkhas fast marching to Sousa’s Liberty Bell March, the theme music to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. We sang along.

One day there was a big bang. I knew the noise was a bomb because my mother, a veteran of the Liverpool blitz, had often made just this noise – WHOOOOF – with a little jump in the air and wide open eyes, the sound of a landmine explosion in the next street that never left her memory of young married life. In 1970s London, I used to think how strange it was that someone had been trying to kill her when she was the age I was then.

On that day the big bang drew us to the windows. The line of sight placed the plume of smoke directly behind Downing Street, and it was some time before we learnt that the target on that day was not the Prime Minister’s residence but New Scotland Yard, then still in its original location on Whitehall Place.

There was obviously a contingency plan. Friends reported armed troops in Trafalgar Square in the hours that followed, and the next day the parade ground at Wellington Barracks was full of armoured vehicles.

In spite of this and other explosions, life continued as normal, but something tells me that this moment, this explosion that hit at the heart of state security, was a marker in the subsequent closing down of London’s urban landscape. A motivation for military and civilian powers to intensify plans that anticipated threats of violence to political targets, that bomb in 1973 seems to me to have been a signal for the start of the changes that have created the Britain we inhabit nearly fifty years later.